What Does the “Shoulder Drop Off” Sign Mean?

Shoulder Drop Off and Soft Shoulder Sign

Shoulder Drop Off and Soft Shoulder Signs

Can you tell the difference between these two signs?

For your written knowledge test you are often asked to identify a number of common road signs by shape, color, symbol, or message. Even if these two signs aren’t in you state’s drivers manual or on the official DMV test it is a good idea to understand the difference between them.

Results on practice tests released by driversprep.com suggest that only two out of three test takers manage to tell them apart.




Question 1: This sign means:
The Shoulder Drop Off (W8-17) sign

  •   A. Soft shoulder
  •   B. Sharp turn
  •   C. Significant shoulder drop off

CORRECT ANSWER: C. This sign indicates a significant shoulder drop off adjacent to the travel lane. If you leave the travel lane, it may be difficult to control your vehicle.

Question 2: This sign means:
The SOFT SHOULDER (W8-4) sign

  •   A. Soft shoulder
  •   B. Significant shoulder drop off
  •   C. Both A. and B.

CORRECT ANSWER: A. This sign warn of a soft shoulder condition. You should avoid leaving the paved portion of the roadway. Unless posted otherwise, there is no significant shoulder drop off.

What Does the Shoulder Drop Off Sign Mean?

The Shoulder Drop Off (W8-17) sign

As you can see, the two signs don’t mean the same thing.

The Shoulder Drop Off sign (W8-17) tells you that the shoulder running along your travel lane is significantly lower than the pavement. The difference is at least three inches. If any of your wheels run off the pavement, it can be difficult to control your vehicle.

The sign doesn’t say anything about the condition of the shoulder itself, just that it is lower than the travel lane.

Where there is a drop-off, but the difference between travel lane and shoulder is less than three inches, you may see the the Low Shoulder (W8-9) sign (below).

The LOW SHOULDER (W8-9) sign

The Low Shoulder and the Shoulder Drop Off signs basically mean the same thing, one is just more dramatic than the other.

When there is a drop off between travel lanes (this may occur when there is ongoing road works), the Uneven Lanes word message sign is used.

What Should You Do If You Run Off the Pavement?

Whenever any your wheels drift off the roadway and onto a shoulder, you should hold the steering wheel firmly and steer straight. Let your vehicle slow to a reasonable speed. Don’t slam on your brakes and don’t try to swing back onto the roadway right away. Wait until you have full control off your vehicle. Then, check the traffic behind you before you carefully move directly back onto the roadway.

This especially important where there is a sharp drop off.

As soon as all four wheels are back in the travel lane, straighten your front wheels and proceed with traffic

Remember, if you jerk the steering wheel back onto the travel lane at high speed you are very likely to lose control and even move into opposing traffic. Many accidents are caused by drivers who panic and steer abruptly back onto the roadway. Keep your cool in these situations.

What Does the Soft Shoulder Sign Mean?

The SOFT SHOULDER (W8-4) sign

The Soft Shoulder sign (W8-4) is used to warn of a soft shoulder condition. Meaning, the shoulder running along the side of the travel lane is made of gravel, dirt or a combination of both.

Such shoulder is not suitable for driving and may not hold a heavy vehicle. When moving onto a soft shoulder you should also be aware of the risk of losing traction and skidding. You should only use a soft shoulder if there is an immediate emergency.

If you need to use a soft shoulder for an emergency stopping, try to reduce speed while you are on the main portion of the roadway and move onto a soft shoulder at a very low speed. Hold you steering wheel tightly and use brakes only if necessary.

Remember to turn on emergency flashers while you are stopped on a shoulder.

When you move back onto the paved portion of the roadway, wait until there is a large gap in traffic. Signal and gradually steer back onto the road. Increase speed when you are on the road, not on the shoulder.

More to Learn for Your DMV Test

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